Conditioning Exercises Shouldn’t Just Burn Fat, They Should Build Muscle Too
Have you ever had an amazing workout and felt great until the end when you have to do your conditioning exercises?
I know I had, but then I found out that conditioning doesn’t have to be so bad. In fact it can be kind of fun.
Conditioning exercises are one of the most important parts of any workout routine no matter what you are training for. When done properly, conditioning exercises help you to train longer, harder and better. Conditioning exercises also help you to burn fat and increase your strength on any of the big lifts.
But the trick is…..
You have to know what you are doing.
Pretty obvious, but you would not believe how many people are unaware of proper conditioning.
Traditional Cardio Exercises Vs Conditioning Exercises
I have written articles on both of these forms of “cardio” before and I have nothing personally against them, but if you want to get the most out of your training, you need to learn to build your base.
The whole purpose of conditioning exercises and workouts is to build an aerobic/endurance base of conditioning for your training. This is often called general physical preparedness (G.P.P.) in the elite athletic circles.
Related: General Physical Preparedness
By building this base, you will recover from your workouts faster, gain more strength in your lifts and build more muscle mass.
But before you start throwing and slamming things, you need to know how to structure your workouts.
With the birth and growth of CrossFit, the fitness world has seen a surge in intense conditioning styled workouts.
These workouts can be done on your “off” days, or days when you are not lifting anything really heavy.
The best way for you to do these is first thing in the morning at least 1-2 times per week.
These workouts involve various themes and styles including:
AMRAP — As Many Rounds As Possible
These are great for overall conditioning as well as burning some fat.
Example: Perform as many rounds in 12 minutes of:
Kettlebell Swings 20 reps
Double Unders 15 Reps
Pull Ups 10 Reps
EMOTM — Every Minute On The Minute
I like doing these MetCons when I want to focus on improving my technique. You only want to do them using only 1 or 2 exercises max. Anything more is usually too much.
This will improve your motor coordination and it will also give you a great baseline of strength and conditioning.
Every minute on the minute perform 3 reps of back squats with 185 lbs until failure.
21-15-9 — 3 Rounds | 1st round every exercise is 21 reps | 2nd round everything is 15 reps | 3rd round everything is 9 reps
You can go heavier on this style MetCon. The idea is to really push yourself during the last round. By round 3 that weight is going to feel pretty heavy.
Perform 3 rounds of:
Hang Cleans 95 lbs
Box Jumps 18 inches
This is only one of the ways you can program your conditioning exercises. As you can see, you are only limited by your imagination.
The key to designing a MetCon is to perform as much work as possible in the shortest amount of time. Thus, you will increase your work capacity.
Pretty cool huh?
But there is another way to structure your conditioning exercises. You can actually structure them as a workout in and of themselves. We call these small workouts.
A small workout is a workout where your regular strength training exercises become your conditioning exercises.
Why would you want to do this?
Well for starters it gives your muscles some unbelievable workouts. But more importantly it also helps to speed up the recovery of your muscles from your regular strength training sessions.
Plus, with all the extra repetitions you are reinforcing good motor patterns. This will actually make you stronger.
The way to structure these workouts is simple. You find an area of your body that is weak and you pick 2-3 exercises for that area and perform 1-2 sets of high reps for each exercise.
What does high reps look like? About 15-20 reps!
That is just the minimum, I usually recommend going higher than that at all costs. For some exercises I have gone as high as 30-40 repetitions for a single set!
Let’s go over an example.
Say you have just done squats and noticed your hamstrings are weak. Your small workout would look like this:
Squats 1 set X 20 reps (50% 1RM)
Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift 2 sets X 30 reps
Prone Hamstring Curls 2 sets X 20-40 reps
Hill Sprints 6 rounds 20 yards
With a workout like this you want to keep the weight light. You should do no more than 50% of your 1 rep max and no more than 85% of your 10 rep max.
If you don’t know how to calculate your 1 rep max, be sure to check out my article on increasing physical strength for an explanation.
When To Perform Your Conditioning Exercises
Your conditioning exercises can be performed just about any time depending on your goals. However, there is an optimal time to perform them.
For starters, if you are performing them on your heavy lifting days, then you want to perform them at the end of your workouts.
If you have an “off” day then you can perform them any time during the day. In fact you can even do 2 conditioning workouts on your off days. You could do a MetCon in the morning and a small workout in the afternoon.
It is totally up to you when you want to perform them, but as a general rule of thumb, perform only 1-2 MetCons per week and/or 2-3 small workouts per week.
Now let’s get to the exercises!
First up on our list are hill sprints. Hill sprints provide a brutal leg workout and help to condition your legs for heavy strength training.
They are also of great importance to sprinters to increase your tolerance for lactic acid. Anybody who want to run longer or faster should definitely give them a try.
All you have to do is find a steep hill somewhere and run up it as fast as possible, then jog your way down and rest for 30 seconds. Repeat for anywhere from 6-12 times.
The sandbag is one of the best conditioning tools for strengthening your torso. If you find yourself rounding your back during deadlifts or squats, then the sandbag is for you, provided you have the right amount of hip mobility.
The best exercise to start with are carries. Pick up the sandbag and bear hug it into your torso as hard as possible. Now just start walking with it for about 40-50 yards, then rest for 30 seconds. Then pick it back up and walk it back to the starting position.
You can also perform cleans with the sandbag and Zercher squats. Keep the workout between 15-20 minutes and watch your squat and deadlift explode.
The best sandbag is by a company called Iron Mind. This sandbag works the best because it has no handles. It is even used in the worlds strongest man competition. Be sure to check it out!
Kettlebells provide some of the best conditioning exercises out there. They help to burn fat and increase your aerobic capacity. I talk more about the benefits in my kettlebell training article.
The first exercise to master is the swing. I describe in full detail how to perform swings in my kettlebell article.
After you can do swings, the next exercises to perform are cleans and snatches. After you get these down work on using 2 kettlebells for your exercises.
One of the simplest and best workouts is to simply perform kettlebell swings for 5-10 minutes straight with no rest. You will melt fat off and fell like you just ran a 10k.
This is my personal favorite, the sled. Just like the sandbag, the sled will add a tremendous amount of weight to your squat and deadlift. And it will also boost your bench press and overhead press as well.
You should use a sled that comes with a harness that you can attach around your waist so you can pull it. Once you have the harness, just add some weight plates and start dragging.
The best part about the sled is there is no eccentric component. So your muscles really don’t get sore. This makes it valuable for not only strength but also recovery.
If you get one with straps, you can also push/pull the sled with your arms giving you some great upper body conditioning.
Here’s a good sled to get:
Jump ropes are great because of how affordable they are. By far one of the cheapest pieces of gym equipment.
With a jump rope you need to master the basic jump first, then you can move on to the more difficult variations, such as double unders.
The harder the variation, the more effective the conditioning will be. The jump rope trains you the same way sprinting does except you don’t actually need a race track.
If you don’t already have a jump rope, the best one to get is the Rx jump rope. It really help with the double unders:
20 Rep Workout
The 20 rep workout is great for training assistance lifts with a little more kick than your typical small workout does.
Simply pick an assistance lift, or main lift that makes you fatigue quickly, and select a weight you can normally do for about 10 reps.
Except this time perform 20 reps no matter how long it may take you. The trick is to take in a couple of breaths between each rep.
Explosive Push Ups
Let’s never for get the importance of bodyweight training. Calisthenics help to build a massive amount of relative strength. Explosive push ups are no exception to this.
First start out with traditional clapping pushups and perform as many reps as possible in 30 seconds, then rest for one minute. You will typically get somewhere around 10 reps.
For most people this will be very difficult, so do these on an elevated surface of some kind. These will sculpt your arms and add more weight onto your bench press. All good things!
In case you don’t know, a landmine is a stationary device you attach a barbell to to perform single arm/single leg exercises. It is NOT an actual landmine.
You can use it for all kinds of pushing/pulling conditioning exercises, but it really shines with ab exercises.
It trains your core for rotational strength. Something that most exercises do not target. The landmine will give you huge bulging obliques that will keep your spine stable and safe for a lifetime.
Most commercial gyms do not have a landmine, but that’s ok because there is a cheap portable version that you can find on Amazon. You can even carry it with you in your gym bag.
This is the one:
The ropes kick ass! I’m not just saying that either. These things are a conditioning workout in themselves.
Simply grab the handles of the rope and lift them up high and slam them into the ground as hard as you can for one minute. You’ll be sweating profusely!
Another great variation is to alternate both hands and make as many small waves as possible. This is great for conditioning the forearms and shoulders.
If you feel your arms fatiguing quickly on bench day, the ropes will do the trick.
Turkish Get Ups
I was originally going to include this with the kettlebell exercises mentioned earlier, but I felt Turkish Get Ups deserved a category of their own.
Lie down flat on the floor with a kettlebell in one hand with your arm full extended. Now perform a sit up until you are in the half kneeling position. From here stand up.
The kettlebell should be up toward the ceiling the whole time. This exercise help to build both core stability and total body awareness.
Set a timer and perform as many repetitions in 5 minutes on each side as possible. That’s the whole workout! Sounds easy but it is brutal!
If that’s not tough enough for you try doing them with a barbell. You’re welcome.
So there you have it! Not only do you have the 10 best conditioning exercises, but you also have detailed workout plans for how to use them.
Start implementing them into your workouts as soon as possible!
This time frame from November to January is often called the dead time in gyms because everybody gets distracted and lets themselves go during the holidays.
Don’t do that! Keep up with your conditioning and your body will reward you by giving you amazing gains.
After all, isn’t that the best gift you can get during the holiday season?